A film headlined by some central relationship — be it two friends or two lovers — will often contain two very important components: a character who is a giver and one who is a taker. The former of the pair puts more of themselves into the relationship, leaving themselves more at risk to see their efforts unrequited; the latter lives far more aloof to their partner’s dedication, enabled yet unaware of their own assumed apathy. Structuring a relationship this way creates a slew of attractive dynamics between the two onscreen: Will the taker realize their selfishness and give something back? Will the giver ever become so fed up as to opt out? When the credits roll, what will be the status of the relationship between the two?
Writer/Director Corey Finley’s debut film “Thoroughbreds” goes a long way to turn these standards on their head, playing off of how his main characters’ relationship is expected to advance and reach some interesting areas. The film follows two New England teens, the preppie protagonist Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch” and “Split”) and her sociopathic sidekick Amanda (Olivia Cooke, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), as they execute a murderous plot against Lily’s hated step-father. Finley builds up Lily and Amanda’s relationship to one climactic sequence where the two girls must decide what they mean to each other, and what they mean to themselves. This great sequence features more than one surprising character twist that forces the audience to redefine the lines drawn in the sand, the separation of sanity and a once-temporary temper tantrum no longer so clear. There are about 10 minutes where “Thoroughbreds” is great. Sadly, that is as much praise as can be given to the film. Apart from the penultimate scene, it isn’t worth the watch.
Which is disappointing more because of what is onscreen than what is not. There are the makings of a new-classic teen drama, but its poor pacing and misplaced dedication to an unnecessary horse motif get in the way. “Thoroughbreds” lacks narrative direction for far too long. The interesting part of the film, when two rich teenagers plan to murder one of their family members, isn’t committed to until the film is halfway into the second act. It dwells too long on Lily and Amanda’s sparse, uninteresting back stories and possible moments of disingenuous behavior for too long, not leaving enough time for what the audience bought tickets to see. Cooke’s character especially has some issues. The Patrick Bateman-esque teen explains, minutes into the exposition, her analysts’ difficulty classifying her, practically giving her a new diagnosis at the end of every session. This is way overdone. The character acts mildly sociopathic throughout the film, yet the movie acts as though she is the most insane character to ever grace the silver screen. Amanda’s character flaws are a microcosm of a larger problem “Thoroughbreds” seems to have — it distrusts its audience to the point of failure, over explaining instead of allowing brevity to pack a punch. The harrowing climax mentioned above hits with dampened impact because it’s succeeded by 10 more minutes of unnecessary fluff, turning what would have been a fantastic finale into a wasted penultimate sequence that screams bloody murder: “WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN?”
Adding insult to injury, “Thoroughbreds” is technically superb. It seems to take heavy influence from Iñárritu’s “Birdman” in both its cinematography and its simple, percussion based score. Finley’s tendency to gravitate toward long, tracking takes probably comes from his background as a playwright; some of the moments in the film feel almost made for the stage. Apart from maybe a tiny bit of overacting from the leads in their first scene together, the performances were impressive as well. “Thoroughbreds” had the potential to set the world on fire; instead, it will slip past the box office into early cycle irrelevance until it’s either inexplicably chosen by the spoon-throwing public as a cult classic, or until Finley returns to try again.